Mr. Darcy recently had the opportunity to visit Winchester Cathedral, the burial place of his creator. He viewed the memorials to her there with great interest. The first is a plain stone slab erected by her family which bears this homely inscription:

In Memory of JANE AUSTEN, youngest daughter of the late Revd GEORGE AUSTEN, formerly Rector of Steventon in this County. She departed this Life on the 18th of July 1817, aged 41, after a long illness supported with the patience and the hopes of a Christian. The benevolence of her heart, the sweetness of her temper, and the extraordinary endowments of her mind obtained the regard of all who knew her and the warmest love of her intimate connections. Their grief is in proportion to their affection, they know their loss to be irreparable, but in their deepest affliction they are consoled by a firm though humble hope that her charity, devotion, faith and purity have rendered her soul acceptable in the sight of her REDEEMER.

Decades later, in 1870, a more elaborate brass tablet was erected next to the stone. It was paid for by her nephew, James Edward Austen-Leigh, partly with proceeds he had made by writing a memoir about his increasingly well-known aunt. In the 1890s public subscription financed yet a third homage: a stained glass window depicting, amongst other saints, Augustine–as a pun on the name Austin. Perhaps if the window had been put up at a later date it would have shown St. Darcy! For, as Ms. Austen’s fame has grown with the years (she began to achieve commercial success around 1814, but not personal recognition, her novels all being published anonymously), so has the renown of her most popular hero. It’s a cycle of media fortune: if Mr. Darcy hadn’t been brought to vivid life again and again, through TV and movies, though he is “tall and handsome with a noble air”, though he is a landowner, wealthy and accomplished, would he be still be seen as the ultimate romantic figure? Or would he merely be a good-looking character with a nice house, a snarky wit and execrable manners?

The power of millions of fans have given Mr. Darcy the framework of transcendence, in the same way a shiny golden plaque and vases full of flowers from fervent admirers have turned Jane Austen from a quiet, barely noticed country lady into a literary lion. Her words were always vivid, but if not for fame would anyone hear them? If not for a seductive Colin Firth emerging from one of the most touted lakes in miniseries history, would anyone love Mr. Darcy? Which comes first: the myth or its creation?

Advertisements